Return to Separate the wheat from the chaff (thing)

Bloomfield, New Jersey, sits on the border of Newark, part of the urban fringe. No commercial [farm|farms] exist here now, and if someone pursued such a [quixotic] venture, they would not grow wheat. We already have [Kansas] for that.

Still, given the rabid efforts of many Americans in these parts to grow [lawn] grass, it seemed a reasonable proposition to grow some wheat in a tiny patch of the backyard. Wheat is just [grass] all grown up.

One May afternoon, I scattered about a pint's worth of seeds over a 20 square foot patch, scritched the [earth] with a rake, and then went about my business. Three months later, I had my very own [America the Beautiful|amber waves of grain] fluttering in the warm August breeze.

I carefully cut down my wheat, tied it up into [stook|stooks], and let it dry. A little pride crept in as I admired my stook, my connection to the past, smug as only a [Luddite] can be. My smugness would soon be cured.

Separate the wheat from the chaff.

A quaint [Bible|Biblical] expression, easy enough to interpret. The wheat is the solid, [good] stuff. The chaff is the fluffy [bad] stuff. Throw the wheat in the air, and the heavier wheat berries fall straight down, while the chaff [winnowing|wafts away with the wind]. In the old days, the collected chaff would be burned, not out of some symbolic representation of [Hell], but just as a quick way to get rid of bullky waste.

So on [Sabbath] you head off to church, root for the the good guys (the [wheat]), tsk, tsk the bad guys (the [chaff]), pat yourself on the back for falling in with the wheat crowd, then go home and munch on some [bagel|bagels] made from, well, wheat.

Turns out it's not so simple. While today's [pastor] can glibly warn his [flock] to avoid the chaff types, any [farmer] back in Biblical times knew that wheat did not come in two parts. The chaff is an integral part of the wheat plant. The chaff is the dry [husk] surrounding the [wheat berry], the actual grain used for food.

Before winnowing the chaff from the wheat berries, you need to thresh the wheat. Threshing is basically knocking the wheat kernels off the rest of the plant. Today this is done with a combination reaper/thresher (called [combine] for short), a machine that can cost well over a million dollars.

Back in Biblical times, combines did not exist. Today they exist, but I was not going to invest a million dollars to harvest a tiny patch of wheat. I got to do it the old-fashioned way--beating the wheat until my arms were ready to fall off.

Initially I tried a [Wiffle ball] bat. Little success.

I made a flail--two sticks tied together end-to-end, allowing me to beat the heads of wheat much more efficiently.. A flail looks like [nunchaku], or nunchucks, for a good reason. Nunchaku were initially farming tools..

Flailing is very hard work. I pounded and pounded my small stook. I once shoveled scrap metal on ships in [stevedore|Port Newark]. I'm not sure which is harder.

The chaff is an integral part of the plant, not some sinister fluff stalking the grain. Separating the wheat from the chaff is not about separating good folks from bad. That's too easy.

Before separating a part from itself, you need to break it. Threshing wheat requires [violence]. The wheat plant is [broken]. Separating the wheat from the chaff involves breaking one's lesser tendencies from the better. Indeed, the actual separating part is easy. Once the grain is threshed, wait for a breezy day and toss the threshed grain in the air. The wheat berries will bounce at your feet, the chaff blown away. People once knew this. wheat and chaff were not distinct elements until after the threshing.

The parabolic statement about wheat and chaff reminds us not only that the [community] is mixed but also that each of us have our own good and bad elements. There is for each of us chaff that needs to be blown away and burned. There is a separation here of good and bad, useful and useless; but it is not like the difference between apples and oranges. Each of us individually is wheat and chaff.

The Very Rev. Dennis J.J. Schmidt, from The Wheat and the Chaff, December 9, 2001

I will not likely grow wheat again; I have too little land, and the work of threshing by hand is a bit much for a man in his 5th decade.

What do I have to show for it? Well, I have a half pint of homegrown wheat sitting in a [Mason jar], enough for a couple of bagels should I grind it into [whole wheat flour|flour]. More importantly, I have a better grasp of "separating the wheat from the chaff," and what a loaf of bread meant to my forebears, and still means to most of the people alive today.